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British Poor & Vagrancy Acts

Seventeenth century England was primarily a land of hamlets and villages with the majority of the population living in the south. The population numbered just over five million.

The plantations in the first quarter of the century were just as brutal as ever, with more blacks being worked into the system. Just as in the home country brutal punishments were meted out to disobedient servants.


1722: Settlement, Employment and Relief of the Poor Act urged parishes to make greater use of workhouses, and provided for parishes to combine in whatever way they chose to share workhouses or to contract out the care of paupers.

1729: Poor Law Act tightened up the regulations as to the issue of settlement certificates and the orders that costs of removal shall be paid by the parish of settlement.

1738-9: Special rates amalgamated with the poor rate.

1744: Rogues, Vagabonds, and other Idle and Disorderly Persons Act prescribed punishment of up to one month in the “House of Correction” for those who abandoned their wives and children to the support of the Parish, lived idly and refused work or begged alms. A reward of five shillings could be paid to any person apprehending an offender. The Act also prescribed punishments for confidence tricksters and other deceivers. The justices were empowered to impress incorrigible rogues into naval or military service. This was slavery, plain and simple. However, military service was preferred by most men to the lot of a convict laborer or servant.

Poor Relief Act to remedy “some defects” in previous acts (especially that of 1601) mainly appertaining to overseers and their accounts. Parish officers were enforced to keep proper “poor relief” accounts. Just as in the depression era relief attempts by the government in the 1930s, relief funds for the poor were mostly funneled off by those cruel task masters charged with overseeing their distribution.


1753: [2] A Bill proposing “taking and registering an annual Account of the total Number of People, and of the total Number of Marriages, Births and Deaths; and also of the total Number of Poor receiving Aims from every Parish and extra-parochial Place in Great Britain” was passed by the House of Commons on the 8th May lapsed. These provisoon were viewed harshly by the landed elite of England and even more so by the plantation owners and workhouse mangers of the Colonies.

1773: An Act for the better Regulation of Lying-in Hospitals, and other Places appropriated for the charitable Reception of pregnant Women and to provide for the Settlement of Bastard Children, born in such Hospitals and Places. The father of my father's branch of the family was disposed of according to this act in the early 1800s, sold to French Canadians by the British Government.

1774: Act for Regulating Private Madhouses followed the report of a Select Committee of the House of Commons (1763): and introduced licensing, in London by Commissioners elected by the Royal College of Physicians, and elsewhere by justices at Quarter Sessions.

1775-8: Series of Select Committees: investigated poor relief and vagrancy.

1782: Act for the Amendment of the Laws relating to the Settlement, Employment, and Relief of the Poor (Gilbert’s Act): encouraged parish unions to build larger workhouses with better management. Thomas Gilbert (1720-98, barrister and Poor Law reformer) edited “Collection of Pamphlets concerning the Poor," 1787. However as R Porter (English Society in the Eighteenth Century, Pelican, 1982) has commented “Bigger workhouses just ran at bigger losses. Only a few hundred were founded. Parishes floundered from expedient to expedient. Supplementary relief would be tried and then abandoned for a spell in favour of a house of correction or an experimental workhouse, followed by contracting out to entrepreneurs, and then back to botched-up outdoor relief.”

1790: Justices of the peace empowered to inspect and report on workhouses

1792 Acts: dealt with abuses in the removal of vagrants and forbade the whipping of females; and another act introduced punishment of overseers for neglect of duty.

1793: Registration of Friendly Societies. Many of the Societies provided medical attention to their subscribing members.

1795 Poor Law Act: authorised overseers, with the approval of the vestry, to give “out-relief” to the poor (i.e. in their own homes) without imposing the ‘workhouse test.

“Speenhamland System”. The local justices and clergymen meeting in May at the Pelican Inn, Speen, near Newbury, to consider the conditions arising from poor harvests and the rise in the price of grain, decided to introduce a subsistence level pegged to the price of bread and to use the poor rate to supplement the wages of labourers to that level. Although not the first to take that decision, they were widely copied and this use of outdoor relief became known as the Speenhamland System. Although such relief was better than nothing, it resulted in lowering wages, increasing the poor rate, and removing the distinction between pauperism and independence. These overseers charged with relieving the poor, were also charged with beating them and selling them to the plantations oversees through sea captains

An independent America now preferred important German servants, African slaves, purpose-bred Negroes and kidnapped American poor, to taking England's castoffs and convicts, 150,000 of which would be shipped to Australia early in the next century. It was no longer desirable to ship away poor and orphaned children who could be employed as coal miners and factory workers in cramped and deadly conditions adults were unable to operate in due to their size.

The changes of the industrial revolution made men more valuable in pursuits such as whaling, soldiering, lumbering, home steading, mining and naval service. The back-breaking labor was increasingly split between black chattel in the fields and white children and urban poor in the cities of the north and England. The last child slavery law to be abolished in New York was on the books until 1929.

Stillbirth of a Nation: Caucasian Slavery in Plantation America: Part One

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